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Frozen in time: Public involvement welcomed as melting ice reveals hidden treasures in Canadian Rockies

Exploring the great mountain wilderness, an observant hiker spots a dark object sticking out of a melting pile of snow.
A vintage Olympus Ace Rangefinder that was found on the Athabasca Glacier in Alberta in August 2023. The old, rusted camera was a late 1950s model and is suspected to have been on the glacier for decades. | Jordan Small / RMO

Exploring the great mountain wilderness, an observant hiker spots a dark object sticking out of a melting pile of snow. 

Squinting at the unusual item, the curious mountaineer walks closer, discovering what can only be described as a makeshift tool used by an early Indigenous culture on what is now a Canadian national park. 

Within reach of the artifact that’s been hidden in ice for hundreds of years, if not, thousands, the attentive hiker jots notes describing what it is, the condition it's in, taking photos using a smartphone, and pinpointing a geographical location – all without touching the old item. 

The hiker will relay the initial information gathered to Parks Canada at the end of their mountainside excursion so their archaeological field unit can investigate further. 

Accidental archaeological discoveries play a vital role in Parks Canada research. 

Each year, melting ice patches and glaciers share a greater amount of artifacts and that’s expected to continue. Once an artifact is discovered, stabilized and recorded, researchers can use the find to help with the historical connection and understanding of certain areas.  

“It’s great to have public involvement in this,” said Aaron Osicki, acting manager, Terrestrial Archeology West for Parks Canada. 

“I think the key thing with ice patch discoveries is a person has to be at the right place at the right time. These items are potentially encased, trapped in ice, [and] very hard to see it unless you are there at the moment it’s melting out of the ice. To be there too early you won’t see it, to be there too late, it may wash away or it will quickly deteriorate with exposure to the environment, so it’s great to have people aware and looking for things.” 

A snapshot in time 

A recent discovery in Alberta doesn’t date back to the times of short-faced bears and other extinct North American wildlife, but it shows that melting ice and receding glaciers make for chilly time capsules of any period. 

On Aug. 29 of this year on the Athabasca Glacier in the Canadian Rockies, an old camera was picked up by a group on an Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG) apprentice alpine guides exam. 

Exposed to the elements for decades, time has weathered the square-shaped camera into an unusable reddish-brown clump of rust. 

Teresa Yau, one of the future guides being assessed, said three others stepped over the well-camouflaged technology before the discovery was made by the group’s examiner. 

“It blended in quite nicely with the rocks,” said Yau, with a laugh. 

“After climbing a few pitches on the Silverhorn, we walked out well below the Nunatak and exited towards the Athabasca Glacier North Tongue Rock bypass. One of the candidates was short-roping myself and the other candidate down the glacier and we all walked right past the camera as it looked like a rock on the glacier.” 

Due to the popularity of the Athabasca Glacier and its relatively easy walking accessibility from the Icefields Parkway, the timeworn instrument could have been lost by accident, set down and forgotten or left there on purpose. 

It’s hard to tell when the camera ended up there, but its model and year shed some light. 

Camera expert Dave Marshall, owner of Film Experience Camera Store in Longview, Alberta, said the vintage model is an Olympus Ace Rangefinder built in the late 1950s. It is the only interchangeable lens rangefinder film camera made by Olympus. 

This camera, equipped with a 50-millimetre Zuiko lens, was a good quality, general purpose photo-taker for its time.  

There is a possibility a film canister is still trapped inside, protecting a window into a long-gone era. It had occurred that if the film could be developed, the pictures could then be used to help locate the more than 60-year-old camera’s owners or kin. 

However, Marshall said two significant enemies of film are heat and moisture, and, judging by the looks of the rusty relic following its decades of bathing next to a glacier, the inside will be junk.  

“You could take a shot at it, but I don’t think you’re even getting that canister open in one piece,” he said. “That canister is just going to be a pile of rust and I’m very sure the film will be ruined.” 

Marshall added the aged camera has no real dollar value. It’s simply a case of beauty in the eye of the beholder. 

“I’ll put it this way, if that camera was in perfect shape, it might have a value of 50 bucks,” he said. 

Silently sitting next to the large mass of ice and snow for decades deteriorated the camera. 

However, its discovery is a part of something that’s happening around the world at glaciers and ice patches.  

As melting occurs worldwide, artifacts that were once frozen in time are squeezing loose from icy death grips. 

When these ancient artifacts are uncovered after being cut off from the world for hundreds or thousands of years, usually archaeological value is higher because they are better preserved. 

Sometimes a discovery is returned to Indigenous communities, who called these lands home long before European settlement. Such was the case when a 2,000-year-old bison skull, unearthed in Banff National Park during a construction project, was returned to the Blackfoot people in 2019. 

Osicki said they are trying to educate others on what to do when potentially finding artifacts from melting ice. 

“It is a fact that the ice is receding and melting quite quickly everywhere,” said Osicki. 

“Having the public out there, hiking and enjoying the mountains, which I like to do, too, having them with their eyes open and in the back of their mind the possibility of finding something near melting ice, that’s great, so long as they help tell us what they found and where it is.” 

Key points for anyone who discovers something in Canadian national parks and historic sites is notifying Parks Canada about the discovery, leaving the item where it is found, and documenting as much as possible through photographs, video, a GPS or geographical location of the discovery, and taking notes like what was found and what kind of risk it’s in. 

“That’s been done in the past by the public and it’s helped us a lot,” said Osicki. 

Ice patches and glaciers 

On the field, Osicki and his colleagues help identify unknown archaeological sites and manage existing ones and resources. 

He said artifacts are more commonly discovered in ice patches than glacial ice. 

The difference between ice patches and glaciers is size, with the latter being more gigantic. Glaciers are also dynamic and constantly moving, slowly pushing their enormous icy-girth down valleys. 

“Not only do any artifacts become trapped or frozen in the ice, they tend to get squished, if not pulverized, through ice movement,” said Osicki. 

“Whereas ice patches are much smaller in size and static, and static for thousands of years, but they are melting away. Everything is essentially melting away quite quickly.”  

In the Canadian Rockies, there has been 11,000+ years of known human occupation. The ice patches Osicki and his crew have been working on are between 5,000-6,000 years old. 

Though the Canadian Rockies don’t have the same amount of finds as in the Yukon or Northwest Territories, with Rockies ice rapidly melting and long-time human occupation factoring in, there is “high potential” for artifacts around the 5,000-year-old timeframe being out there. 

“The potential is definitely there because the people were there, the ice patches were there and the animals were there,” said Osicki. 

What exposed treasures Osicki and his colleagues have found after being hidden in the frosty time capsules for hundreds or thousands of years are highly variable, such as stone tools, bones and antlers, flora and historical artifacts, among others. 

Osicki said a few of the more heart-pounding discoveries have been a knotted strap of leather and sticks that were tapered on the end, which could have been used as an everyday tool like a walking stick or as a gut-piercing weapon like a spear or arrow. 

“Those cultural discoveries are always really exciting,” said Osicki. 

Old bones and antlers found in melting ice patches of the Canadian Rockies are usually from past caribou. However, one of the more exciting skeletal remains located was a 4,000-year-old bison humerus, a large bone in the forelimb, discovered in a subalpine area near Maligne Lake in Jasper National Park in 2016. 

“There was no evidence of [humans] hunting [the bison],” said Osicki. “In talking, loosely, with Banff and their bison introduction program that’s going on, we are seeing that the re-introduced bison in Banff are actually going up in high alpine areas. So it’s not unusual to have them in these areas, apparently.” 

Osicki said there is a healthy amount of archaeological work going on every year in the Canadian Rockies, such as desktop reviews and going out in the field and identifying new sites as well as re-visiting and addressing existing ones to updated information, site management and helping mitigate impacts to them. 

“If we start to find a lot more artifacts coming out of the ice, then we will step up our response to that,” said Osicki. “Right now we are still very much in a monitoring and observation stage, as well as sharing information.” 

Parks Canada, partnering with Natural Resources Canada, monitors glaciers such as the Athabasca Glacier, to document the real-time effects of climate change. They call the research an “important indicator of climate change.” 

The data is shared with the World Glacier Monitoring Service at ( 

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